One hundred and fifty years ago, the Republican Party stood for and upheld the bedrock principle of America and the democratic experiment that continues to be central to the American Experience: the idea that under a just God all humankind is born free and equal.
Yesterday, the President repeated those words and made that principle that Abraham Lincoln held so dear central to where he wishes to lead the nation in the next four years. Only in terms more suited to the Twenty-first century rather than the Nineteenth President Obama termed the continuing direction of the nation as the completion of a journey begun in a small hall in Philadelphia in 1776.
Since the election last November 6th that won him a second term and gained seats for his party in both houses of Congress there has been much speculation as to how the defeated minority party might respond to a nation whose demographic landscape has been changing dramatically for the last decade and a half at least.
There is also the social shifting of our society carried forward by a new generation of younger people who by stronger majorities are more readily accepting of gender, color, and sexual orientation that might be different from their own.
The defense of a nation ruled by a white majority of socially conservative Protestant Christians who make common cause with corporate business and Catholicism to support a free market minus government regulation and pro-life ideology is no longer workable. It simply does not comport with the reality of life in Twenty-first century America.
Republican conservatives have spoken of learning how to talk to their fellow Americans when they are women or of color a full 47 years after landmark Civil Rights legislation of the Second Reconstruction brought in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Republicans in the 1970’s were much more adept at this than they are now.
A measure of just how out of step and trapped on the completely wrong side of history as well as the Arc of the Moral Universe spoken of by Martin Luther King Jr. conservatives and Republicans have become is shown by the reaction of a multitude of conservative commentators who termed the Second Inaugural Address to be “radical,” “leftist,” and highly partisan.
Fox News Commentator Bill O’Reilly, an expert on the Lincoln Assassination and presumably on the Sixteenth President, should have been pleased and stirred when he heard the words of the old Declaration and Thomas Jefferson who penned the immortal paper. Lincoln carried those very words deep in his soul. But O’Reilly lamented that President Obama wants to go down in history as fighting for social justice. We must ask Mr. O’Reilly if he and his fellow conservatives are desirous of going down in history as the champions of social injustice.
Supporting freedom for all and equal opportunity and treatment in society are directly matters of social justice as they were in Lincoln’s and even Jefferson’s time.
True, the President did defend the Twentieth-century welfare state where collective action by citizens of the nation for the common good of all using government as a vehicle for solving challenging social and economic problems drew support in the speech. But those are long-held New Deal 1930’s matters of principle that the United States as a people should be well attuned to by now.
Medicare and Medicaid are real and tangible things to most people in the present and have been around just as long—almost half a century now so that the poor and the elderly can receive the medical care they must have. Poor families with children are most in need of Medicaid and would be most hurt if it is to be cut or done away with. Senior citizens of all backgrounds depend on Medicare and one angry Tea Party stalwart has entered the history books already by shouting at a rally: “Don’t touch my Medicare!”
Social Security has been with us since 1935, nearly four score years, about the span of time between the nation’s founding and the Civil War that preserved the United States and ended slavery. Many Civil War veterans were still living and received Social Security benefits for a few years before their deaths. It is that old.
And both Medicare and Social Security are subject to payroll taxes the eventual recipients pay into all their working lives. This is not “taking” as thought of by the Paul Ryan’s of the world but a just reward for hard work and prudent public policy.
Calling for American citizens to act as a part of the governance of the nation is truly radical. That much the conservative critics of the President have completely right. The idea that the masses of the civic population of the nation are capable of helping to govern themselves remains a direct challenge to entrenched power everywhere. It is a contested idea and will always be contested in the political arena as Columbia University historian Eric Foner has written and so eleoquently argued.
Democracy is not a natural tendency for the organization of society and its governance. We yet call our republic and its democratic ascendancy an experiment. Maintaining it has required social struggle domestically and repeated defense of it militarily at the greatest sacrifice to the soldiers that preserved our democratic heritage for us and who even now do so.
Barack Obama recognized in his speech on Monday that we neither want nor tolerate mob rule nor do we tolerate entrenched rule by an anti-democratic elite. In a nation where 93% of the income and wealth growth flows to the top one-percent of us the rule by such an elite is plainly written in the weathered faces of people who work for a living and in their troubled hearts.
His critics have said that he is a socialist and would take away the property they have earned. They said Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a communist when he served as President. The nation was much the better for his leadership and policy both in the stormy days of the Great Depression of the 1930’s and the mighty endeavor to preserve freedom in our world in the 1940’s.
A good deal of Tea Party dogma, the stuff of the CPAC Washington D.C. conventions each year and the core of today’s Republican Party and the people who adhere to it meets with the full approbation of the John Birch Society, an ultra-right fringe group of the 1950’s and 1960’s. That is where the Republicans and most conservatives have gone to.
What is required of conservatives and Republicans now is that they become a direct part of a sea-change in their principles and behavior on social matters that are being decisively decided in just the opposite direction of their long-held prejudices.
You can’t simply give lip service to being tolerant and accepting of people of color, women, and those with a differing sexual orientation or those who have had a long hard road of travel in poverty and despair. There must be a fire in the belly of conservatives to truly embrace the demographic shift taking place in the nation in terms of race, sex, gender, and social and class position.
It does not mean their deeply Christian faith must be attacked. No, it is a challenge to live out that faith more fully and more genuinely as Christ taught his disciples. You cannot love even your enemies and be as intolerant and hateful as conservatives have been for the last decade.
It does not mean having to accept abortion for yourself or your wife or daughter if your family truly does not accept it or views it as murder or something that violates your faith and belief. There is no shame or wrong in standing firm for the sanctity of human life.
But they must see that there are other people who make up the political community that is the United States who may view abortion as not an end to be sought yet who do strongly feel that what a woman does with her body and health is not a matter for the government or other citizens to dictate. Only the woman whose body it is, her doctor and her moral conscience can dictate her action.
There are other portions of our political fabric in this nation who just as fervently hold to other religious faiths or who choose freely as our Constitution declares not to be coerced into adherence with someone else’s religious faith. These people expect the same freedom and respect for these things that define who they are as conservatives do.
Our conservative brethren must see the inherent righteousness of welcoming the stranger and of doing justice to the most vulnerable among us.
The view that people who are not as materially well off or who do not have your education or position in society are somehow less deserving of equal treatment under the law or socially shunning or discriminating against those who do must change.
Otherwise the journey the President spoke of will not progress. Already Lance Priebus the Chairman of the Republican Party in 2013 has publicly admitted that the primary response of his party to their crushing electoral defeat last November will be to continue to restrict access to voting to those constituencies who favor the other party, and to manipulate and gerrymander the electoral college to permit the shrinking Republican vote to win future elections they do not win at the ballot box by popular vote or the traditional Constitutional arrangement of winner take all among the various states in the Electoral College.
Instead of coming into the Twenty-first century with the rest of us, the Republican Party and conservatives generally wish to undermine our democracy in fundamental ways merely for their benefit. A strong national defense, fiscal responsibility, a free market economy, hard work to get ahead and a strong faith of some kind that provides ethical and moral guidance are still greatly accepted principles by most everyone.
But racial, social, ethnic, and religious intolerance and narrow-minded hidebound bigotry is NOT acceptable to the vast majority of American citizens now. The disarray, even the outright destruction of the Republican Party is distinctly a possibility with grave consequences for the nation. Struggles for Justice views the stubborn inability of these people to change with dismay and disappointment.
Efforts to block the vote of citizens or to cynically gerrymander our democracy to allow a minority like this to rule despite the popular vote of an overwhelming majority will provoke the strongest resistance among the populace. The danger of civil discord and a real threat to the Union saved in war over a century-and-half-ago is now on the table.
What will they do? What happens to a great extent lies in their hands. Closed minds and closed hearts cannot effect the change required of our nation to meet the challenges it faces now and to preserve the democratic experiment we all claim to cherish.
The Arc of the Moral Universe is indeed long, but it is bending so markedly away from the conservative right that they find themselves distinctly on the wrong side of its windings toward social justice.